With its unique blend of culture, tradition, cosmopolitan excitement and world-class recreation, Kentucky should be on any traveler’s must-see list. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a casual day-tripper, or someone seeking the best culinary treats east of the Mississippi, there are plenty of reasons for you to explore the state. But, if you still need more motivation, here are five reasons to add Kentucky to your vacation calendar.
Urban Centers with Flair & Southern Hospitality
Blending small-town charm with modern sophistication, Louisville and Lexington, the two largest cities in Kentucky, offer a rich blend of arts, culture, entertainment, and urban recreation.
Louisville’s major claim to fame is the legendary Kentucky Derby. However, the city offers so much more. Stroll down the inviting Riverfront Plaza along the revitalized riverfront of the Ohio River where tourists can enjoy a scenic river cruise or charter a sailboat. With more than 2,500 restaurants, Louisville serves up a wide variety of food experiences, from country cooking to fine dining, and the best place to start is “Restaurant Row” on the Bardstown Road corridor.
In addition to its eclectic culinary options, Louisville is home to a dynamic arts scene, with the Kentucky Center for the Arts at its core. Once you’ve visited the center, you can explore a range of other museums, including the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Kentucky Science Center and the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft.
Once upon a time, Lexington was a bastion of culture so refined it earned the nickname “Athens of the West.” While it’s now more popularly known as the “Horse Capital of the World,” it still offers visitors a cultural flair unlike any other city.
In the heart of the Bluegrass region, Lexington has more than 500 horse farms, and the Kentucky Horse Park provides visitors a feel for life on the farm. It’s not often you find a city where fine dining and museums are nestled right together with the great outdoors, but Lexington is one of the rare exceptions. Check out the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary with miles of hiking trails, historic landmarks and the Arboretum, run by the University of Kentucky, which is well worth a visit any time of year. Oh, and don’t forget about Bluegrass music. The iconic sound of the Appalachians and Kentucky can be heard in venues all over the city, but one of best ways to enjoy the music and the culture is at the annual Festival of the Bluegrass in June.
Only teetotalers might not know that Kentucky is the homeland of bourbon production. About an hour from Lexington and only 45 minutes from Louisville is the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” Bardstown. Here visitors can start a trip on the Bourbon Trail—a coalition of 10 of the finest distilleries in the in the state that encourage participants to learn more about the art and science of crafting bourbon, in addition to sampling it, of course. Stop and smell the real roses on the grounds of the Four Roses distillery, take an in-depth look at the “chemical and sensory” aspects of making Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select or try dipping your own bottle into the iconic red wax at Maker’s Mark.
While bourbon gets most of the glory, nestled into the lush rolling countryside are expansive vineyards that visitors of the Bluegrass State are often surprised to find. It is home to the first commercial vineyard in the country, and at one time Kentucky wineries produced more than 50 percent of the wine yield in America. The Kentucky Department of Tourism has even pulled together a comprehensive map that highlights Arts & Wine destinations. One worth starting with is the Purple Toad winery in Paducah. Best known for sweet fruit wines, it’s the most medaled among the Kentucky wineries. At Prodigy Vineyards & Winery of Frankfort you can taste “bone” dry red wines. And you can step back in time with a visit to First Vineyard in Nicholasville. Established in 1799, it was the first commercial vineyard in the U.S.
According to beer aficionados, Kentucky may have had a bit of slow start in the craft brew scene. But they certainly have not been left behind in the craft brew storm that has swept the nation in recent years, as a plentiful selection of independent brewers in Kentucky offer live music, entertainment, and restaurants to go along with their beers.
Outdoor Wonders You Have to See to Believe
The spectacular 65-foot-high waterfall at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is already a box to check on many visitors’ “to do list,” and it’s one of only two places in the world where folks can catch a glimpse of the elusive “moonbow,” a phenomenon that only happens on clear nights with the right amount of moonlight. There is also an insane amount of camping, hiking and watersports available in the area.
How about the longest known cave system in the world? Well, Kentucky has it at Mammoth Cave National Park, where the cave system includes 400 miles and five levels that have already been mapped, plus an unknown labyrinth still to be investigated. Above ground, the park boasts 52,800 rolling, wooded acres with two rivers flowing through it, providing a variety of activities in some of the most majestic forest in south-central Kentucky. In addition to Mammoth Cave, the National Park Service manages five other park service units in Kentucky, each worth exploring to combine excellent outdoor adventures with some of America’s richest history. These include Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the birthplace and boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, a Civil War battlefield and cemetery, the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains, and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
Ask any climber on the East Coast where to go and there is no question that the iconic Red River Gorge will be near the top of every list. The Red, as locals call it, spreads out over a huge geographical area and is home to more than 1,500 sport routes and a bit of high-quality trad climbing. To get info on local climbs, stop in at the mecca of climbing culture in the area, Miguel’s Pizza in Slade, which also doubles as a climbing shop and campground. The Red River Gorge is also a dreamland for paddlers, offering some of the most scenic and interesting whitewater in the Southeast.
Speaking of whitewater and paddling, it would be remiss not to mention that Kentucky has more miles of navigable water than anywhere else in the contiguous United States. Try sailing or SUPing at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area on Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, or rent one of the world famous houseboats on Lake Cumberland. You can also take a dip in some of the best swimming holes in the state at Ratliff Hole and Pool Point at Breaks Interstate Park, which is also the access point for one of the prettiest stretches for paddling and fishing in Kentucky.
Extraordinary Southern Cookin’
Barbecue, fried chicken, and cornbread are just a few of the staples of what is typically considered Southern fair. While you’ll find these items on many menus across the state, some places put a modern twist on the old classics, including highly respected Bill’s Restaurant in Owensboro, where it’s said that a little bit of soul goes into every bite. No visit would be complete without trying the open faced hot brown sandwich, a belly warming concoction of turkey, bacon and the cheesy delight that is Mornay sauce. While this sandwich can be found on most menus in the state, why not try it right from the source at J Graham’s Café inside the Brown Hotel in Louisville.
With all those miles of waterways and lakes, it should come as no surprise that cooks in Kentucky know their way around a fried fish, with catfish being the specialty. On the western shore of Kentucky Lake folks return year after year to the Catfish Kitchen. They even have some delicious gluten-free options, however make a reservation as this place is hopping.
Dessert can’t be forgotten, so let’s talk pie. Pecan, key lime, and sweet potato are all tried-and-true Southern favorites. But, how about a slice of Kentucky native George Clooney’s favorite, Transparent pie, from Magee’s Bakery in rural Mason County? Or how about some light-as-air Coconut Meringue pie, from a perennial favorite, The Whistle Stop in Glendale?
Trail Towns That Have It All
With so much to do and see in Kentucky, it might be difficult to know where to start. Luckily, the state has created a Trail Towns program to highlight communities that combine outstanding recreation opportunities with culture, food and history. Since the program’s inception in 2012, 16 towns have earned the title, all of which are road-trip worthy and take the stress out of travel planning. The Trail Towns website offers a general description of the town and area, a list of available activities, including hiking, horseback riding, and cycling. There are also links for lodging, restaurants, outfitters, and directions for one-stop shopping to make the trip easy peasy from start to finish.
Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.
Featured image provided by Shannon Tompkins